When I visited Wallens Ridge in the spring of 1999, it was new and as yet unoccupied. It felt like a house on moving day, all echoes and loneliness. What I found there was the perfectly evolved American prison. It was both lavishly expensive and needlessly remote, built not because it was needed but because it was wanted by politicians who thought it would bring them votes.
The use of American correction executives with abuse accusations in their past to oversee American-run prisons in
Up the Ridge is a one-hour television documentary produced by Nick Szuberla and Amelia Kirby. In 1999 Szuberla and Kirby were volunteer DJ’s for the Appalachian region’s only hip-hop radio program in Whitesburg, KY when they received hundreds of letters from inmates transferred into nearby Wallens Ridge, the region’s newest prison built to prop up the shrinking coal economy. The letters described human rights violations and racial tension between staff and inmates. Filming began that year and, though the lens of Wallens Ridge State Prison, the program offers viewers an in-depth look at the United States prison industry and the social impact of moving hundreds of thousands of inner-city minority offenders to distant rural outposts. The film explores competing political agendas that align government policy with human rights violations, and political expediencies that bring communities into racial and cultural conflict with tragic consequences. Connections exist, in both practice and ideology, between human rights violations in Abu Ghraib and physical and sexual abuse recorded in American prisons.